Industrialization, Migration to Cities, and Social Reform

3 Introduction

Industrialization in the late 19th century and early 20th century had a profound impact on U.S. cities. It led to a dramatic increase in population, as people from all over the world moved to U.S. cities in search of work in the new factories. This population growth put a strain on city infrastructure, leading to problems such as overcrowding, pollution, and crime.

Industrialization also led to a change in the social structure of cities. The new factories created a new class of wealthy industrialists, who often lived on the city’s outskirts, to get away from the pollution and unsanitary conditions of the city. On the other hand, the working class lived in crowded tenements in the city’s slums.

The rise of industrialization also led to a number of social reforms. Reformers such as Jane Addams worked to improve the lives of the poor and working class. They established settlement houses, which provided social services such as education, healthcare, and recreation to the urban poor. They also lobbied for government reforms such as improved sanitation and housing codes.

The impact of industrialization on cities in the United States was multifaceted and far-reaching. It underwent both positive and negative transformations. On the one side, industrialization provided many individuals with new jobs and prospects. However, it also caused issues such as overcrowding, pollution, and crime. The Progressive Era’s social reforms helped to offset some of the bad impacts of industrialization, but the problems of urban life would remain a major issue for decades to come.


  1. Learn about the impact of industrialization on the United States
  2. Understand how the Great Migration changed the populations in northern cities
  3. Recognize the challenges and solutions city’s faced in the late 19th and early 20th century


Key Takeaway:

  • The Industrial Revolution in the 19th century led to the growth of cities in the United States and around the world. Industrialization of America led to the increased need for urbanization to support the growth of industries and the influx of immigrants seeking job opportunities.
  • The Great Migration took place when African Americans moved from the rural South to the urban North and West in search of better economic opportunities and freedom from racial discrimination. This mass movement reshaped the demographic and cultural landscape of the United States, fueling the growth of vibrant African American communities and contributing to the civil rights movement.
  • Challenges faced by cities during industrialization include housing shortages and overcrowding, public health concerns, and transportation issues. However, these challenges led to societal advancements, such as the creation of public health departments, improvements in sanitation and housing, and the development of new technologies.

Urbanization in the United States

As cities grew and industrialization accelerated during the 19th century, the United States experienced a massive shift towards urbanization. This period of rapid industrial growth was fueled by advancements in technology, transportation, and communication. In this section, we’ll take a closer look at the key factors that contributed to urbanization in the US, including:

  1. The American Industrial Revolution
  2. Immigration and job opportunities
  3. Railroad expansion

By understanding these sub-sections, we can gain a clearer understanding of how urbanization impacted the nation’s growth and development during this crucial period in history.

American Industrial Revolution

The transformation of the American economy from an agricultural-based economy to an industrialized one in the late 18th and early 19th century marked the beginning of the American Industrial Growth. This unprecedented change brought about mass manufacturing, commercialization, urbanization and exponential economic growth. The American Industrial Revolution transpired due to technological advancements like steam-driven machinery, electrification and new modes of transportation.

Black and white photo of a factory along a waterfront.  Plumes of black smoke come out of each of the 4 smoke stacks.

With the introduction of new machines, manufacturers started producing consumer goods on a large scale. Industries hence experienced massive growth through mass production leading to a reduction in unemployment rates, numerous career opportunities and thus improved living standards for many people. Cities began emerging as socio-economic centers leading to rapid urbanization and initiating population movements from rural areas into cities.

One of the many significant impacts of the American Industrial Revolution was that it significantly improved transportation making it more effective for moving goods swiftly. The establishment of railroads allowed for easier transfer as goods and persons would arrive at their destination faster than before.

Black and white photo of train.  The caboose is open and has both men and women riding it.  There are people watching the train from a platform next to the track.  To the right of the train is a mountain and to the left is a clear cut area with wood strewn everywhere.

Immigration and Job Opportunities

The influx of immigrants in the United States during the 19th century gave rise to a great demand for jobs as well as increased labor force. This, in turn, led to a tremendous boom in industrialization, with factories and manufacturing sites sprouting up all over America. Men, women, and children found employment opportunities that were previously unavailable to them.

With this massive growth came new challenges for those who moved to these urban centers. Many immigrants faced appalling working conditions such as long hours with low wages. At the same time, a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment rose which lead to laws including the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers to the United States. The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first major federal law to restrict immigration based on race or ethnicity. 

The City of Modesto, California (1886) enacted an ordinance that can be seen as both a forerunner of zoning and an example of land use regulations to promote racial segregation (here against mostly Chinese-run laundries):

  • “It shall be unlawful for any person to establish, maintain, or carry on the business of a public laundry or washhouse where articles are washed and cleansed for hire, within the City of Modesto, except within that part of the city which lies west of the railroad track and south of G Street.” [ordinance upheld by the California Supreme Court in 1886] 

Check out the court case here

[I love going down rabbit holes and this is one that I’d love to explore more – Prior to the Modesto ordinance, San Francisco had an ordinance that required all laundries in wooden buildings to hold a permit issued by the city’s Board of Supervisors. The board had total discretion over who would be issued a permit. Although workers of Chinese descent operated 89 percent of the city’s laundry businesses, not a single Chinese owner was granted a permit. Yick Wo and Wo Lee each operated laundry businesses without a permit and, after refusing to pay a $10 fine, were imprisoned.  Yick Wo and Wo Lee sued and case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court which found the enforcement violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.  That case was decided in 1886. I’m curious if the Modesto ordinance was a reaction, a sort of work around of the 14th Amendment.]    

Railroad Expansion

The Expansion of Railway Networks

The swift implementation of railway networks transformed transportation in the United States during the 19th century. Railroad expansion facilitated easier and faster movement of goods across the country’s vast expanse. The development of railroads allowed cities to grow, connect urbanites to rural areas, and helped bring resources to burgeoning urban communities.

Innovative approaches such as the transcontinental railroad were constructed, enabling rapid movement not only inside states but between them. Also, locomotives introduced dynamic new modes of intercity travel by reducing travel time to a fraction of traditional methods.

Railway enhancements expanded economic opportunities for farmers, miners, manufacturers, and traders in remote regions. It significantly boosted agricultural production by enabling farmers to access new markets easily. Urbanization grew as people moved from countryside farms into cities that were serviced by railway systems.

Great Migration

The Great Migration was the movement of 6 million African Americans from the rural Southern United States to the urban Northeast, Midwest, and West between 1910 and 1970. It was caused primarily by the poor economic conditions for African American people, as well as the prevalent racial segregation and discrimination in the Southern states where Jim Crow laws were upheld. In particular, continued lynchings motivated a portion of the migrants, as African Americans searched for social reprieve.

The Great Migration occurred in two waves, basically before and after the Great Depression. At the beginning of the 20th century, 90 percent of black Americans lived in the South. By 1970 nearly half of all African Americans lived in Northern cities.

Map of the United States with the southern states in a dark gold color with arrows moving to the north and west.

The Great Migration had a profound impact on the United States. It helped to desegregate the North and West, and it led to the rise of a new African American middle class. The Great Migration also had a significant impact on American culture, as it introduced new styles of music, food, and art to the North.

Here are some of the key causes of the Great Migration:

  • Economic opportunities: The Great Migration was driven in part by the promise of better economic opportunities in the North. The industrial cities of the North were experiencing a boom in population and economic growth, and there was a high demand for labor. African Americans were able to find better-paying jobs in the North, and they were also able to escape the sharecropping system that had trapped many black farmers in the South.
  • Racial discrimination: The Great Migration was also driven by the desire to escape racial discrimination in the South. Jim Crow laws in the South enforced segregation and discrimination in all aspects of life, from education and employment to housing and public accommodations. African Americans were tired of being treated as second-class citizens, and they saw the North as a place where they could finally have the same opportunities as white Americans.
  • Violence: The Great Migration was also driven by the desire to escape violence in the South. Lynchings and other forms of violence against African Americans were common in the South, and they created a climate of fear and intimidation. African Americans were tired of living in fear, and they saw the North as a place where they could finally live in peace.
    The Great Migration had a profound impact on the United States. It helped to desegregate the North and West, and it led to the rise of a new African American middle class. The Great Migration also had a significant impact on American culture, as it introduced new styles of music, food, and art to the North.

Here are some of the key impacts of the Great Migration:

  • Desegregated the North and West: The Great Migration helped to desegregate the North and West by bringing millions of African Americans to these regions. This led to increased contact between black and white Americans, and it helped to break down some of the racial barriers that existed in these regions.
  • Led to the rise of a new African American middle class: The Great Migration led to the rise of a new African American middle class. This was due to the fact that African Americans were able to find better-paying jobs in the North, and they were also able to escape the sharecropping system that had trapped many black farmers in the South.
  • Had a significant impact on American culture: The Great Migration had a significant impact on American culture. It introduced new styles of music, food, and art to the North. For example, the Great Migration helped to popularize jazz music, which was developed by African Americans in the South.


Challenges Faced by Cities During Industrialization

Cities had two particular issues they faced during the early years of industrialization: Housing Shortages and Overcrowding, and Public Health Concerns


Housing Shortages and Overcrowding

During the 19th century, urbanization and industrialization had caused a scarcity of lodging, resulting in overcrowding among lower social classes. Accommodation conditions were dire as tenements were built to maximize space for profit without regard for basic sanitation and safety regulations.

In addition to inadequate housing infrastructure, there was also a lack of access to clean water and proper sewage disposal. Economic hardships forced people to live in cramped conditions as they struggled to make ends meet. The influx of migrants into urban areas meant cities were unable to cope with the surge in population growth.

As a result, diseases spread rapidly, leading to life expectancy reduction, excessive mortality rates with poor health outcomes such as tuberculosis and cholera.

Public Health Concerns

During the 19th century, the rise of industrialization and urbanization led to several Public Health Concerns. The living conditions in cities were poor, with overcrowded spaces, lack of proper sanitation, and polluted air and water. These circumstances resulted in a spike in infectious diseases like cholera, tuberculosis, and typhus. The importance of responsiveness of urban planning to public health was crucial to resolve these issues.

One of the most well-known studies was don by John Snow, who was an English physician and anesthesiologist and is considered the “father of modern epidemiology”. He is best known for his work on cholera, in which he used maps to show that the disease was spread through contaminated water. His work led to the removal of the handle from the Broad Street pump, which is credited with stopping the spread of the cholera outbreak in London in 1854.

Water pump surrounded by men, women, and children.  Man is drinking from a cup while a girl fills her pitcher.  A skeleton in a crown is operating the pump.  Underneath the image it says "Death's Dispensary. Open to the Poor, Gratis, By Permission of the Parish"

Snow’s use of maps to track the spread of disease was a groundbreaking innovation in epidemiology. It allowed him to identify patterns in the data that would have been difficult to see otherwise. This information was essential for Snow to develop his theory that cholera was spread through contaminated water. 

Black and white aerial map of city streets.  At various points there are stacked black rectangles.

Snow’s work on cholera was not only important for epidemiology, but also for public health. His findings led to the implementation of measures to improve water quality, which helped to reduce the incidence of cholera and other waterborne diseases.

To address Public Health Concerns effectively, urban planners had to implement changes in city design. They prioritized developing better housing facilities for the working class people by building low-cost tenements with improved lighting and ventilation systems. Addressing hygiene by constructing sanitary facilities such as bathhouses and toilets helped reduce disease outbreaks. Similarly, separation of residential areas from factories reduced pollution levels considerably.

It is essential to note that these changes did not happen overnight as it took time to establish better housing conditions, sanitation systems, and city designs which could align with the public health agenda. However, continuous efforts towards creating healthier environments and access to better healthcare led to significant improvements in overall population health.

Solutions to Address Urban Challenges

Rapid urban growth brought a host of challenges for city dwellers. However, there were solutions that emerged to counteract these problems. In this section, we’ll explore some of these potential solutions, and how they worked to address urban challenges. We’ll take a look at the establishment of public health departments and improvements in sanitation and housing. At the same time, there was a push for to improve social welfare of poor communities.  These solutions have had long-lasting impacts on our modern cities, and continue to shape the way we live today.

Creation of Public Health Departments

During the industrialization period, the emergence of populous cities created numerous challenges, including public health issues. The response to these challenges led to the establishment of Public Health Departments, a vital part of urban development.

Public Health Departments were established in various cities and towns during the 19th century to address public health concerns. These departments oversaw sanitation practices, ensured sewerage systems functioned effectively, provided crucial medical attention and vaccinations to combat epidemics. They also collected statistical data that allowed public health officials to anticipate and prepare for future outbreaks.

One significant example is the London Metropolitan Board of Works developed in 1855. This department was responsible for regulating sewage systems and creating waste disposal facilities that paved the way for livable conditions within large cities across Britain.

Improvements in Sanitation and Housing

Sanitation improvements were necessary since unsanitary conditions in overcrowded cities resulted in a rise in contagious diseases such as cholera and typhoid fever. The introduction of better sewage systems helped solve these issues by preventing waste from accumulating on the streets or seeping into water sources. In addition, clean water was provided through increased freshwater supply, which further decreased disease prevalence.

Housing challenges were mitigated through legislation that prohibited slum dwellings containing hazardous materials or inadequate ventilation. Better housing ensured each apartment had adequate space with ventilated rooms and adequate sunlight access. Additionally, improvements in construction techniques facilitated the building of larger housing structures capable of accommodating more people.

In New York City, overcrowding had become so widespread that it soon became known as a tenement city. The government took action to reform living conditions with initiatives such as “model tenements” where safe, decent living quarters We’ll hear this phrase again in urban renewal lesson as well as the Housing module were built for tenants who could not afford better accommodations.

Social Welfare

Social settlements began in the 1880s in London in response to problems created by urbanization, industrialization, and immigration. The idea spread to other industrialized countries. Settlement houses typically attracted educated, native born, middle-class and upper-middle class women and men, known as “residents,” to live (settle) in poor urban neighborhoods. Some social settlements were linked to religious institutions. Others, like Hull-House, were secular. By 1900, the U.S. had over 100 settlement houses. By 1911, Chicago had 35.

Hull House

Hull-House, Chicago’s first social settlement was not only the private home of Jane Addams and other Hull-House residents, but also a place where immigrants of diverse communities gathered to learn, to eat, to debate, and to acquire the tools necessary to put down roots in their new country. The Museum is comprised of two of the settlement complex’s original thirteen buildings, the Hull-Home and the Residents’ Dining Hall. These spaces were used variously over the years, including as a nursery school, a library, and a salon for social and political dialogue.

When Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr first opened Hull-House in 1889, they had very modest goals. They imagined a place to offer art and literary education to their less fortunate neighbors. The role of Hull-House, however, quickly grew beyond what either Gates or Addams could have imagined and continuously evolved to meet the needs of their neighbors. The residents of Hull-House, at the request of the surrounding community, began to offer practical classes that might help the new immigrants become more integrated into American society, such as English language, cooking, sewing and technical skills, and American government. 


Atlanta Neighborhood Union

The Neighborhood Union, founded in 1908 by Lugenia Burns Hope, was Atlanta’s first female-led Black social work organization. Hope was married to Dr. John Hope, who served as the first African American president of Atlanta University and Morehouse College. She had been taught by renowned social worker and lecturer Jane Addams in Chicago. After a series of injustices in their community, she and a core group of middle-class, educated, and community-oriented Black women founded the Neighborhood Union. Neighborhood Union members were assigned to districts to enhance “community consciousness.” House-to-house inspections were performed, and women (with the assistance of Morehouse College students) carried out a survey of dwellings to determine community needs. The also oversaw the provision of medical, recreational, employment, and educational services to Atlanta’s Black neighborhoods. The Neighborhood Union became an international model for community building and race/gender activism.



14 young Black women stand smiling in 2 lines. All are dressed in below the knee skirts.

Image: Junior Neighborhood Union Group, circa 1950

Side Note: Lugenia Hope helped to create the first African American high school in Atlanta, and the first public housing for African Americans in the country

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University Homes [we’ll learn more about it in the Housing module].  Black and white drawing of an aerial view a neighborhood built on a grid pattern.  Mostly multi-family homes rather than single family. A note on the bottom left says "University Housing Project for Negroes - Atlanta Georgia. 1934"

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Washington High School is located in west Atlanta and was opened in 1924. Despite being under Jim Crow and not allowed to vote in state and federal elections, Black Atlantans, were able to form a local voting bloc to compel the city to build the school.  This method became the model for the NAACP’s political strategy into the 20th century. The school has many notable graduates including Martin Luther King, Jr.   3 story brick building with intricate design work and large arched windows and doorways.  Statue out front with 2 men. 1 standing and pulling a veil off the face of the crouched man in front.

W.E.B. Du Bois

W.E.B. DuBois was a sociologist, protest leader, and writer who played an instrumental role in the progress of African Americans in the early 20th century. He was a co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and taught at both Fisk and Harvard University and came to Atlanta to establish a sociology program at Atlanta University (later Clark Atlanta University). Additionally, he conducted empirical sociological investigations that focused on black life in America and racism, lynching, Jim Crow laws, and race riots.

One of Du Bois’ most important study was The Philadelphia Negro is a sociological study of African Americans in Philadelphia. The study was commissioned by the University of Pennsylvania and published in 1899 with the intent of identifying social problems present in the African American community. It was the first sociological case study of a Black community in the United States and one of the earliest examples of sociology as a statistically based social science. Du Bois gathered information for the study in the period between August 1896 and December 1897.

To Do: Read page 6-8

He also created incredible data visualizations.  



While in Atlanta, Du Bois wrote The Souls of Black Folk which is considered one of the most important works of African American literature. The book was published in 1903 and is a collection of essays that explore the experiences of African Americans in the United States. In this book, he wrote a lyrical description of Atlanta, that I still holds truth today. 

[You don’t need to listen to the below video from the Souls of Black Folk, but I wanted to share it because I find it fascinating study of our city]

FAQs about Industrialization And The Growth Of Cities In The 19Th Century

What led to the growth of cities during the 19th century?

Industrialization was the main cause of the growth of cities during the 19th century. As factories grew in size and number, people migrated from rural areas in search of employment and better wages. This led to the creation of urban centers where people lived closer to their workplaces.

What were some of the negative effects of industrialization and urbanization?

Industrialization and urbanization brought about several negative effects such as overcrowding, poor living conditions, pollution, and the spread of diseases. The rapid growth of cities also led to the displacement of rural communities and the destruction of natural habitats.

How did cities change during the 19th century?

Cities changed dramatically during the 19th century as a result of industrialization and urbanization. New technologies such as gas lighting, sewage systems, and public transportation were introduced. Urban planning also became more common, leading to the creation of parks and boulevards.

How did industrialization impact the economy during the 19th century?

Industrialization had a significant impact on the economy during the 19th century. The growth of factories and the expansion of transportation networks led to an increase in trade and commerce. This, in turn, led to the growth of cities and an increase in population.

What role did immigration play in the growth of cities during the 19th century?

Immigration played a significant role in the growth of cities during the 19th century. Large numbers of immigrants came to the United States from Europe and Asia in search of work and better opportunities. Many settled in cities, where they formed their own communities and contributed to the cultural diversity of urban life.

Quick Check

Who first mapped cholera outbreaks in London?

W.E.B Du Bois


John Snow


Lugenia Burns Hope


Jane Addams


Check Answer




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